Skip to main content

Starving for Reform

For two months, inmates in a South Texas immigrant detention facility have been on a staggered hunger strike — what the government calls “voluntary fasting" — to protest alleged abuse, lack of medical care and near-nil access to legal resources.

Lead image for this article

Inmates in a South Texas detention facility began a series of staggered hunger strikes in January, hoping for better conditions and fewer transfers, as advocates pleaded for the federal government to come through on failed promises to reform the immigrant-detention system. Those failings, they argue, prompted inmates at the facility, which sits fewer than 50 miles from Harlingen, to refuse food in protest of what they allege is mental and physical abuse, lack of medical care and near-nil access to legal resources.

The government said on Friday that only two prisoners remain on what it calls “voluntary fasting” at the Port Isabel Detention Center. But the inmates have staggered their fasts, advocates of detention reform say, so that someone fasting this week might be replaced next week by another protester. Advocates allege that hundreds of inmates have taken part since the strike's inception to protest a detention system steeped in failure, secrecy and alleged human rights abuses.

In an report released last year, the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement acknowleged the need to overhaul the current detention management system, especially as it relates to medical care of its inmates, alternatives to detention programs and the process by which inmate records are maintained in case of a transfer. DHS and ICE have identified their shortcomings, says Silky Shah, the organizing and outreach coordinator for Detention Watch Network, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. But, she says, the government appears content to ignore the problems.

“It’s very clear that ICE doesn’t know what it’s doing,” she says. “The system is in crisis — it’s broken. They literally said they don’t have a risk-assessment tool. And they have no idea who they are holding. They don’t know who is inside.”

Who is inside are people like Rama Carty, a Congolese immigrant transferred to Port Isabel after stints in various detention centers across the country. Carty says he was thrust into the immigration detention system following what he claims was a wrongful conviction for a drug-related offense in Maine. His immigrant status kept him in the civil court system, but Carty’s tale paints his life at Port Isabel as that of a convicted criminal.

During the launch of the DWN’s "Dignity Not Detention" campaign in Texas last week at Resistencia bookstore in South Austin, a filmed confessional was shown in which Carty described some of what he saw inside Port Isabel. “Most people have no idea about the mental tortures and the conditions to which immigration detainees are subjected,” he says. “Most immigration detainees assume they will be subjected to a fair process, in which they will have the opportunity to seek legal counsel, get information, have access to their families — that they will have some just adjudication of the immigration removal hearings. That is not the case.”

The problems fester: inmate frustration, alleged prisoner abuse and an overcrowded immigration court docket that forces inmates into a legal process they don’t understand.

“It’s a very emotional experience and a very frustrating experience, because people don’t understand or have any idea how long they are going to be there,” says Meredith Linsky, the director of PROBAR, a South Texas pro bono asylum representation project funded by the American Bar Association and the State Bar of Texas. “They don’t know whether they are going to win their case, whether they are going to lose their case or, if they win, whether the government is going to appeal.”

Add to that, Linsky says, the fact that immigrants, including legal residents, don’t differentiate between their status and that of a citizen. “They don’t understand why, if they’ve lived in the United States for 10, 15, 20 years, they can be deported or if they have children here why they can be deported,” she says.

Government officials, however, defend the current policy and say immigrants need to be reminded they don’t have the rights citizens have, specifically when it refers to detention standards. “If a person is already a legal permanent resident, depending on a crime that they’re convicted [of], they are subject to removal,” says Adelina “Nina” Pruneda, a San Antonio-based ICE spokeswoman. (The San Antonio district office overseas the Port Isabel Detention Center.) “Some of them are even mandatory detention cases. [The sense] out in the community is that [they] shouldn’t be in custody. Well, when you became a legal permanent resident, you were told that if you commit a crime and if you are convicted of a crime, you could lose your status in the United States. The ultimate say comes from the immigration judge, but I think it’s really important that people understand that.”

It’s the fact that some detainees have committed no crimes at all that has advocates balking — and railing against current policy. “Right now the standards for how people should be treated in detention are guidelines," says Barbara Hines, the director of the immigration law clinic at the University of Texas. “They do not have any legally binding effects. They're not a regulation and they're not a law.”

Prisoners are also transferred on a daily basis, which Carty says only acts as a means to destroy families and separate loved ones.

Imuan Woody, a mother of eight who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, echoes that point. Jordan Pindling is the father of her premature twins, now three months old, but he has yet to see them since his arrest on charges that Woody says were later dropped. Police were called to a domestic dispute, she says, and picked up Pindling, her fiance. It wasn’t until Woody drove to Miami’s Krome Detention Center that she realized he wouldn’t be coming home soon. “They told me he was gone. They told me that someone from the Krome Detention Center, one of the officers, came and picked him up,” she says. “They thought he came here illegally, and he didn’t come here illegally. He came here on a humanitarian parole visa [from Canada].”

Pindling was driven to Texas, and now Woody says she lives daily with fears that he will be transferred to another detention facility without warning, putting additional miles between him and his children.

Pruneda says protocol dictates when prisoners are transferred and where. But the general rule, she says, is to place prisoners where there is room. “We have to take into consideration that whenever that person is in custody and we get other people that get into ICE custody, they will look for areas where there are operational beds available,” she says. “If we have to move people around, we will move them around. It has nothing to do personally with that individual. It’s just wherever we have space to detain them. That’s how we run things.”

Transferred or not, the fear of violence for those who protest their surroundings looms heavy, Woody says. “They were threatened with being put in [isolation],” she charges. “They were assaulting them, they were neglecting and abusing them, they were beating them — things like that.”

Anayanse Garza, an immigrant-rights advocate with the Southwest Workers Union, says the threats of violence are not myths, and that neither is the government’s attempt to muzzle inmates who speak out. “We heard from family members, before they cut off all communication to us, that there were about 150 to 200 people [on a hunger strike],” she says. “[Prison officials] blocked our phone numbers from the phone system.”

A detainee’s father, she says, told Garza his son was threatened with being strapped down and force-fed. “They had the right to get a court order,” she says she was told. “They were going to get one no matter what, and they would get a judge to approve it.” The practice would go against what medical professionals, including the International Commiittee of the Red Cross, deem ethical, Garza argued.

Pruneda says that what some people perceive as violence, oftentimes in the form of force-feeding inmates, is nothing more than the government’s effort to ensure inmates are properly fed. “ICE DRO [Detention and Removal Operations] has [previously] received court orders to allow medical health professionals to administer whatever care they deem necessary in the event of a life threatening emergency, but at this time we are unaware of any instance of a detainee being forced fed while in custody at the Port Isabel Detention Center,” she says. “We are going to take proactive measures if needed, but as far as detention officers force feeding, we are unaware of anyone saying that or having that conducted.”

If the perceived threat of violence is overblown, the threat of a prison transfer also rears its head as a means to thwart protests. One inmate told an outside advocate he had been transferred to a Karnes City detention center because he was accused of intimidating others who didn’t want to fast. The official line they gave him was that it was due to bed space. “My guy has been there for two years," the advocate says. "How is that actually an issue?"

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Support independent Texas news

Become a member. Join today.

Donate now

Explore related story topics

Courts Criminal justice Demographics Immigration Border